Stealth 'persuasion machine' promises Republican victories in 2022
A Facebook page shows a child scampering down a school corridor, alerting Ohio families to a scholarship program.
Chatter fills the same page with news ranging from a state anti-corruption bill to the vibrant local real estate market. "It's a great time to be selling a home in Columbus," one post celebrates.
Titled Arise Ohio, the Facebook page is the creation of the American Culture Project - a nonprofit whose website says its mission is to "empower Americans with the tools and information necessary to make their voices heard in their local communities, statehouses and beyond."
Undisclosed on the Facebook page is the nonprofit's partisan goal. Arise Ohio and similar sites aimed at other politically pivotal states are part of a novel strategy by a little-known Republican-aligned group to make today's GOP more palatable to moderate voters before the 2022 midterms by reshaping the "cultural narrative" on hot-button issues.
That goal, laid out in a private fundraising appeal sent last month to a Republican donor and reviewed by The Washington Post, relies on building new online communities that can be tapped at election time, with a focus on winning back Congress in 2022.
"We've created a persuasion machine that allows conservatives to reach, engage and move people to action like never before," the solicitation states. "Now is the time to expand and capitalize on this machine, setting the political playing field in advance of the 2022 election."
Titled "Reclaiming the Public Narrative," the solicitation says the left, because of its clout within cultural institutions, has more access to centrist voters while the right is stuck "within its own echo chamber." It says the group will collect personal data gathered from petitions and other online tools to target voters using "language consumed by those in the persuadable middle."
The solicitation was sent to Warren Stephens, a billionaire banker based in Arkansas who backed President Donald Trump's reelection effort. It was also inadvertently directed to someone who shared the communications with The Post. The documents provide an unusual glimpse into the inner workings of a group whose activities are ordinarily veiled and illustrate how the Republican Party, still largely defined by Trump, is straining to connect with the country's political center.
Stephens, through a spokesman, declined to say whether he had made a contribution to the project.
The American Culture Project is set up as a social welfare organization exempt from disclosing its donors or paying federal income taxes but, in exchange, barred from making politics its primary focus. The project is led by an Illinois-based conservative activist, John Tillman, who also oversees a libertarian think tank and a news foundation that recently received grant money to highlight opposition to public health restrictions. Tillman, who declined to be interviewed for this report, wrote in an email that the American Culture Project's objectives are "issue education and advocacy (not electioneering)."
"We focus on reaching millions of Americans who can no longer rely on traditional media to become fully informed on a diversity of views on the issues of the day," he wrote. "By reaching millions of Americans with a broader, more wide ranging set of issues and ideas, we think that voters will make decisions that will elect people, whether Democrat or Republican, that believe in America's founding principles, and particularly the Bill of Rights."
While data collection and digital ad targeting have become commonplace in political campaigns, what's unusual about the American Culture Project, experts said, is how it presents its aims as news dissemination and community building. It touts transparency and civic engagement using an online network whose donors remain private - part of a bid to shape public opinion as local news outlets crater and social networks replace traditional forums for political deliberation.
The arrangement "puts the lie to the public presentation of these nonprofits as public welfare organizations that might happen to do a little politics," said Noah Bookbinder, president of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "It shows the system is being abused in ways we knew were happening but you usually don't see quite so blatantly."
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The American Culture Project makes little about its activities publicly known. Its website is bare of an employee roster. A tax filing identifies the mission of the nonprofit, launched in 2019, as the "promotion of free market solutions to complex national problems."
But the problem made paramount in the fundraising documents is the left's cultural dominance, which animates charges of "cancel culture" and "woke supremacy."